Collaboration: RF Palmer and Poet Ken Meter

The collaboration between Ray Palmer and poet Ken Meter has been quite interlaced. It began when the two stood side by side during a May, 1998, chamber choir presentation of a choral work that Ray had composed to a Zen koan: “Not the Wind, Not the Flag.” During the rehearsal process, Ken realized that Ray had dedicated himself very fully to expressing the lyrics with musical imagery. This provoked his interest in what might happen if some of his own poems were set to music in this way.

He asked Ray if we would be interested in looking at his poetry. Ray quickly agreed. Three months later, a manuscript for “Siblings” arrived in the mail. In the interim, Ray had asked Ken pointed questions about what he intended at various stages of the poem, to be sure he was faithful to the writer’s purpose. It turned out that Ray’s mission, as a choral composer, primarily focuses on conveying the imagery in the text through musical expression.

Typically, Ray will show Ken early drafts of a work that draws upon Ken’s poems, and will make sure the composition remains compatible with the writing voice. He often asks Ken to critique the musical notation in these early drafts, and Ken’s composing intuitions have helped shape some of these pieces for the better. The final compositions, of course, are Ray’s alone.

Literary appreciation does not stop at the composing desk. Ray’s family (Jan, Rhea, and Emma) have been known to take Ken’s poetry books on family vacations, to read them to each other in the family car as they drive to the North Shore.

Given the composer’s style, it is only natural that these settings exist first as poems that Ken writes, which are later set to music. Only once has Ray “commissioned” a poem to set to music. That composition is “Moon and Mill.” Ray offered the following challenge to the writer: create a set of words that would fit a repeating theme (ostinato) that would carry forward through the entire piece.

For the first time, Ken found himself writing to specific metric patterns—though he learned, as the composition process continued, these rhythmic rules could frequently be bent. The idea of a repetitive theme suggested cycles, and he found himself going back to an old poem he had written about a visit to his mother’s ancestral homeland in Bohemia, imagining the cycles of the moon passing over the landscape, and how they correlated to the squeaky rotations of the mill his family had once owned there. He found that writing this text came more easily than usual.

To date, Ray has set eight of Ken’s poems to music, writing an additional two settings using different instrumentation. Their first joint performance was the world premiere of “In Yan Teopa,” sung by the Oratorio Society of Minnesota under the direction of George S.T. Chu on May 12, 2001. The Oratorio Society of Minnesota chamber choir, under the baton of Laura Leonberger, offered the world premiere of “Wild Roses” on May 12-13, 2006.

Both Ray and Ken sang as part of the two premiere performances. To Ken, the experience of singing his own words was something “I never had imagined being possible. I found that the music transformed the poetry. An image I had crafted became a certain chord; a phrase took on new qualities. The poetry gains a new life of its own, with new coloration, and new levels of meaning.”

More about Ken Meter.